Date: 12 March 1958
Venue: AVRO Studios, Hilversum
Winning country: France (1st win)
Winning entry: André Claveau, “Dors, mon amour”
Hindsight, of course, is a wonderful thing. Now that six decades have passed and everyone knows “Volare”, we are able to pour scorn on the ESC 1958 jury for deciding that the French (and Swiss) entries were somehow better than the Italian one. In fact, this seems to be the thing “Dors, mon amour” is mainly known for these days: the Guardian review for Chris West’s Eurovision book, for instance, used this as an early example of jury derangement. Even when one is talking about “Nel blu, dipinto di blu”, this song also gets inevitably lumped into the equation, as if it was some albatross around Domenico Modugno’s neck.
I am in hearty agreement with much of these views, but since I am writing a blog series on those very decisions, the resultant dismissal bears a bit of further investigation. What makes the French song a much less worthy winner than “Nel blu, dipinto di blu”? Why does one song lift our spirits and the other make us roll our eyes? Why is “Dors, mon amour”, to use the technical term, crap?
The answer, I suspect, lies in its central conceit. As its name suggests, “Dors, mon amour” is about a lover sleeping and not much else. We are shown the static image of someone lying unconscious on a bed, and that is all we get for three minutes: no tossing and turning, no violent sudden awakenings, not even the sight of the husband getting into bed with her. Of course, the Italian entry also featured a person sleeping, but at least Signor Modugno bothered to take us inside his dreams and bade us fly with him. The only movement we get from “Dors, mon amour” is from the matchstick man that is André Claveau, lumbering around his beloved, wildly gesticulating and crooning sweet nothings like “we have all the time to love” while she’s just trying to get some sleep. (And remember: we watched this man for only three minutes and already found him boring. Imagine what it would be like if this had been an eight-hour recital — Claveau certainly seems capable of turning it into one.)
There is no doubt, of course, that Claveau is all sappy when it comes to this woman because he loves her very much. Sometimes, though, his lyrics are so adoring that they come across as a little disturbing. Witness for example his analogy for her slumbering figure: “my princess, locked up in her tower with all the refrains of the night”. Or this description, found in the bridge: “I’m following your soul step by step on its way of joy/ And I amuse myself by leaning over your starry sleep”. The stalker vibes are strong in this one, and it’s not helped by the very hungry look Claveau has on his face. All this may have sounded like a reassuring, homely scene in 1958, but to our modern ears it just sounds creepy and clumsy to boot.
And yet that discrepancy is instructive: it tells us much about why this song won instead of more deserving ones. “Dors, mon amour” may be one of the blandest songs on offer at Hilversum, but it’s also one of the most traditional: no relationships breaking down, no over-confident young men being lectured, just a simple story of domestic contentment. The music, too, is a very placid lullaby, so grown-up that it risks aging everything else around it. Of course, this is Europe in 1958, so we must accept that excitement within music is mostly frowned-upon — as I said back in my piece about “Refrain”, Eurovision was all about rejecting the new sounds that America was bringing to Europe’s shores — but this isn’t just the result of a desire for plain boredom. The ESC was (and still is) touted as first and foremost a family show: despite the relentless efforts of more libertine contestants in recent years, the Contest still tries to appeal to all ages, and in 1958 this meant unadventurous depictions of cosy family life. Anything else was simply too dangerous to be on anywhere other than Radio Luxembourg.
It’s not that this form of parental guidance is boring or anything: if it’s done well it can still be powerful. (It’s still being proved almost every single year.) But there needs to be more than just “aww, ain’t she sweet”, something that makes the song worth caring about. Yet “Dors, mon amour” seems dead set on that one static image of Claveau’s dormant girlfriend and nothing else. There are no attempts to endear us to this woman, no explanations from our narrator on what makes her special — in fact, the lyrics read more like one long paean to Claveau himself and his manly powers of protection. It’s a bland wash of contented feelings, one that takes our empathy for granted and then descends into complacency. One might even call it self-delusion: after all, calling your beloved a princess and saying how much you want to lock them within a tower (even if that tower is a poorly-considered metaphor for your masculine arms) has to raise some eyebrows.
But that kind of self-delusion is what the national juries wanted in 1958, and I have a sneaking suspicion that if you were in the audience at AVRO Studios, you’d have found just as many people willing to plump for it as well (you can hear the audience being much more appreciative of this than of Domenico Modugno). And why wouldn’t they? It was a song cocksure of its own self-sustainability, one whose innate beauty precluded it from having to explain itself — a perfect expression of Eurovision’s original raison d’etre. We’ve seen this attitude before (remember Lys Assia?) and we’ll see it again, but the French were particularly egregious offenders — even in the 1980s, when Europe had moved on to more poppy sounds, the country was still sending dull tunes like this and then throwing tantrums when it inevitably got a bad score — and in its refusal to even consider its audience, “Dors, mon amour” becomes the smuggest of them all.
All this smugness means it doesn’t feel the need to improve itself, and the result is an insipid, three-minute bore that does little to showcase André Claveau’s talent. You can see all that missed potential towards the end of the song, when, having delivered nothing but sweet platitudes for 170 seconds, he catches us by surprise: instead of the quiet, soothing ending you might expect from a lullaby, Claveau’s voice soars, and his eyes glow as if hypnotised by the light of the rising sun. “Here’s the sun of tomorrow, the great sun of eternal love!”, he cries as the orchestra swells triumphantly around him. It’s the one moment where the song threatens to get interesting: having been just another lovelorn man for so long, we are finally, FINALLY getting to see euphoria, an actual emotion, on his face. But that’s it: the orchestra blares out its coda, and Claveau loses himself in the brightness of the morning once more, leaving us watching forlornly from behind. Seems apt, really, for a song that really does nothing but watch.
Strange though it may seem, there were other songs taking part in Eurovision that year as well, and one of them actually got more points than “Volare”: second place went to Switzerland’s “Giorgio”, a dainty little tune that frolics amongst the lakes, switches between German and Italian every thirty seconds, and talks of risottos, chiantis, and oblivious waiters. And who should be behind this whimsical tune? Why, it’s our old friend Lys Assia, back for a third contest in a row — this is her last appearance in our narrative, but she can’t have chosen a better song to go out on. Behind her is our long-suffering friend from Italy: even if you’re tired of all the hype it’s still getting 64 years on, you can’t deny “Nel blu, dipinto di blu” is a wonderfully dramatic song, helped out by an extremely energetic and carefree performance from Domenico Modugno. It’s Eurovision’s first brush with greatness, and deservedly so.
Generally speaking, however, this year’s songs are a step down from the delightful and eclectic offerings of 1957 — whereas the tunes last year were all broadly listenable, this year has some real dull garbage mixed in. Besides those and the French mistake though (voila!), my tastes actually align with the judges: I’d put both “Giorgio” and “Nel blu, dipinto di blu” in my top three, and for a while I wrestled with crowning the latter as my pick of the year. But by the slimmest of margins, I have to give it to someone else: debutant Sweden may not have had the flashiest song or the lasting legacy, but “Lilla stjärna” won me over with its scintillating melody and classy orchestral interplay. Alice Babs sings with the intensity of a young heartsick girl, and it’s a truly jaw-dropping performance: simultaneously hopeful and melancholic, it’s an amazing tune from a country that would, all too soon, be well-known for being full of them.
|PLACE||ACTUAL RESULTS||MY PICKS|
|1st||France, “Dors, mon amour”||Sweden, “Lilla stjärna”|
|2nd||Switzerland, “Giorgio“||Italy, “Nel blu, dipinto di blu“|
|3rd||Italy, “Nel blu, dipinto di blu”||Switzerland, “Giorgio”|
Eurovision loosens up just a little bit, as the 50s end not with a bang, but with a half-hearted shrug.